By Emma Ramsay
The Pawn Works Sticker Club is not a response to Art-o-mat, the converted cigarette-vending machines—including one in the Cultural Center—that distribute small-scale art in exchange for five dollars from more than 400 artists, and have operated since 1997. Nicholas Marzullo, owner of the West Side’s Pawn Works gallery and creator of the Pawn Works Sticker Club, instead aligns his vending machines with his own history as a lifelong street- and graffiti-art aficionado.
Seeking a way to easily and creatively promote his favorite artists, many of whom do not have regular opportunities to exhibit in traditional venues, Marzullo immediately turned to sticker art.
The sticker, Marzullo claims, is true to the accessibility and visceral nature of street art. While he acknowledges its appeal to an age “submerged in kitsch,” he considers the medium and his vending machines “deconstructions of childhood.” He collected stickers and other sorts of reproduced images, especially postcards, throughout his youth. As he matured he came to understand that many adults long to reclaim a small piece of their youth in a similar fashion. A recent trip to Japan partly inspired the effort, he says, where he witnessed grown adults standing in line at a vibrant sticker vending machine.
If anything, the stickers are “[subsidiaries] of the gallery,” a utilitarian method of distribution as opposed to a sales gimmick. Like the Art-o-mats, these vending machines make art attainable at a reasonable price. Fifty cents pays for a high-quality vinyl sticker. Artists recognize this as a viable way of networking that connects them with each other and their admirers. The three current machines—two in Chicago, one in Brooklyn—are individually curated, though a few feature a collage of artists, and a contract ensures low prices. Moreover, the machines, with their functional design, emphasize the art itself as opposed to the retro branding of the Art-o-mat.
Marzullo reports that the response from artists, novice and established alike, has been “exponential” so far. It can be difficult to choose a design from so many choices, the only real criteria being the three-inch-by-four-inch size requirement—simply to fit in the cardboard slots in which the stickers are packed. It is simply a matter of whether or not Nick and his partner Seth Mooney, currently based in New York, like the image. Then the two consider “how it would relate to others and where it would go.” Large portfolios are also ideal, Marzullo adds, so they might have at least two images that can be used in the machines.
Asked to identify artists on the current roster that he is particularly excited about, Marzullo immediately cites C215, a prolific Paris-based stencil artist and muralist whose splashes of color and meticulous representation of social outcasts is instantly recognizable. His works can be found on streets the world over. Another standout for Marzullo is British luminary Eelus, whose dark sense of humor and surreal images bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Banksy. Seen on international streets, both artists are finally beginning to show in more formal venues. Other artists of note include Chicago’s Joe Padilla, who, despite his refined, understated style, is beginning a more adventuresome foray. And, of course, there is The Grocer, an enigmatic vandal who has inspired much curiosity these past few years with his bold images of, appropriately enough, produce.
The first vending machines in Chicago debuted last month at the Pawn Works gallery and The Beauty Bar, and due to the enthusiastic response from the street-art community several more machines are in the works. They will be featured in smaller, more casual environments such as record and comic-book shops. Other potential U.S. sites include Denver, Portland and Atlanta. Major European and Asian cities are also possibilities, provided the proper venues can be found and currency issues worked out.
However, despite the project’s success in a relatively short period of time, it did not get off to an easy start. After initially shopping the idea around in Chicago, the sticker club did not gain footing until it reached Brooklyn. Only then did Marzullo and his associate gain the prestige necessary to intrigue the Chicago arts community.
Marzullo attributes these reactions to the lengthy history and greater presence of the art scene in New York. What this says about the local scene is subjective. Regardless, the stickers are “conduits,” as Marzullo puts it, facilitating stronger ties among artists and viewers who might never have gained exposure to cutting-edge street art to begin with. It is also the labor of love for a diehard fan.
See pawnworkschicago.com for current vending machine locations.